Musings on Bond at 50: Thunderball

Posted: 20 August 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

ThunderballOriginally conceived as the first James Bond film in the late 1950s, Thunderball remains at the centre of ongoing legal disputes that affect Eon Production’s usage of SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Early prints of Goldfinger announced that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would be the next installment in the series but before the film was released the opportunity arose for Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to make the project that they had intended as the debut for the cinematic 007: Thunderball.

In the summer of 1958 Ian Fleming began a collaboration with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham to develop ideas for a James Bond film adventure. Until the abandonment of the project in January 1960 there were there were around ten outlines, treatments and scripts variously entitled SPECTRE, James Bond of the Secret Service and Longitude 78 West. Elements included an aeroplane of celebrities in the Atlantic, ships with underwater trapdoor in their hulls, a climatic underwater battle scene, and the theft of nuclear weapons. In early drafts the villains were the Russians, but Fleming later changed to the international organised criminal organisation, SPECTRE. Though McClory made claim to having originated the concept of SPECTRE there is a memo from Fleming to Whittingham and McClory that indicates otherwise.

My suggestion on (b) is that SPECTRE, short for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, is an immensely powerful organisation armed by ex-members of SMERSH, the Gestapo, the Mafia, and the Black Tong of Peking, which is placing these bombs in N.A.T.O. bases with the objective of then blackmailing the Western powers for £100 million or else.”

In 1961 Fleming took the concepts of the the failed film project and used them as the basis for the eighth James Bond novel Thunderball. McClory gained access to a copy of the novel before publication and sued Fleming for plagiarism. As part of an out of court settlement in 1963 McClory retained certain screen rights to the novel’s story, plot, and characters. Future editions of the novel carried an acknowledgement that the plot was based on the original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming.

Thunderball - Sean Connery 1By the time the lawsuit was resolved James Bond was a massive box office success and in order to prevent the creation of a rival series Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman brokered a deal with McClory whereby they would executive produce a film version of Thunderball in which he would take the credit of producer. One of the reasons McClory agreed to the deal was because Broccoli and Saltzman had the trump card he was missing: Sean Connery. However, Connery was becoming increasingly unhappy with his association with James Bond and Thunderball would feature his last convincing performance as the character started to disappear beneath an arsenal of gadgets. “Everything but the kitchen sink” as Bond himself comments at one point. In You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever Connery merely goes through the motions “…a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets upon the stage…”.

Thunderball was the first Bond film to be shot in widescreen Panavision and was a massive undertaking. With a budget of $9 million the production involved four different units shooting in locations that England, France and the Bahamas, with a quarter of the film’s two hour running time was devoted to the climatic underwater battle – the first example of the character of Bond being submerged (in this case quite literally) beneath epic action sequences. It was also the first to feature Connery in the opening gun barrel sequence. Previously stunt co-ordinator Bob Simmons had appeared as Bond in the iconic openers but as the footage needed to be reshot for the new format it was deemed the ideal opportunity to utilise the star of the films.

Production designer Ken Adam went to town on Thunderball. From the ultra-modern SPECTRE briefing room to the steeped-in-empire MI6 equivalent, Adam paints a picture of a still potent British Empire in conflict with a terrifyingly modern SPECTRE and their plans for nuclear terrorism. Fleming’s late 50s/early 60s concept of nuclear weapons being stolen for ransom was the first time the concept had been employed and remains just as frightening in the 21st century.

From the sinking of a full-scale replica Vulcan bomber off the Bahamas, the destruction of the Disco Volante in an explosion that shattered windows 30 miles away, and the out-of-season recreation of Junkanoo, Thunderball was a leviathan of a film. After the success of Goldfinger Guy Hamilton was offered the director’s chair but felt he had nothing left to give after the effort he’d expended on that film. Terence Young settled his fee disputes with the producers and was lured back to helm his third Bond film. It is in no small part due to him that the character of Bond was not completely swamped by the gadgetry, sets and locations.

Thankfully Connery is served with some great one liners in Thunderball, including the classic “I think he got the point” after harpooning the villainous Vargas to a tree. The best line goes to his boss as M pointedly remarks “Now that we’re all here…” when 007 finally arrives at the Operation Thunderball briefing. Originally the producers had planned for well-known film stars of the day to cameo as the other 00 agents at the briefing.

For the first time Q goes into the field as part of Bond’s support mechanism. In this instance the trick works but in later films, especially the Roger Moore it becomes rather tiresome with the implication of Q having to uproot his entire department simply to follow 007 around the globe.

Thunderball - Sean Connery 2Broccoli’s initial choices for the role of the lead Bond Girl were Julie Christie and then Raquel Welch but he eventually settled upon Claudine Auger, a former Miss France, after Welch was signed to Fantastic Voyage. Auger is as good in the role as she can be given the under-developed character she was given to work with. By far the most successful female character in the film is Fiona Volpe, the fiery red-headed SPECTRE agent high on life and death. Portrayed by Luciana Paluzzi, Volpe is the first true Bond femme fatale and she delights in playing games with 007, who returns the favour seemingly enjoying the dalliance with death that she represents.

As part of the deal for making Thunderball McClory agreed not to pursue any film projects based upon the material developed with Whittingham and Fleming for 10 years. Ultimately McClory’s remake rights adversely affected the series post-1975, beginning with the planned return of SPECTRE and Blofeld in The Spy Who Loved Me. An excellent insight into the Thunderball saga is provided by Robert Sellers’ The Battle for Bond, including the attempted late 1970s remake entitled Warhead which was mooted to star Sean Connery as Bond, Orson Welles as Blofeld, and Trevor Howard as M.

Thunderball exceeded the takings of the previous three films and returned a box office of $141 million. Less than four years after Dr. No had gone into production the James Bond film series was a global phenomenon and ignited a worldwide craze for spy films and television series. The producers needed to keep Bond ahead of the crowd and they decided to do this by making the films more opulent, more outlandish, and more over-the-top. Concentrating on scale rather than the character of James Bond was not the way to hold onto an increasingly dissatisfied leading man…

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 Thunderball
4 Dr. No

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